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Portage Into the Past: By Canoe along the Minnesota-Ontario Boundary Waters – J. Arnold Bolz

17 February 2016

I’m always on the lookout for regional history, both for my personal library and the book shop. I was tidying up my shelves the other day when I came across this one. I’d forgotten I had it. Not only that but, since it is the only one I’ve ever come across, I’d forgotten such a book even existed. I began to read…

I wish I’d known about it when I first started learning about this area’s history. Originally published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1960, Portage into the Past serves as a wonderful little introduction to the Fur Trade era and the Boundary Dispute that made this portion of the Canada/US border one of the last to be determined. And it does all this in a very novel manner.

Bolz, J. Arnold. Portage into the Past (Minneapolis, U of MN Press, 1960) Sixth Ptg. 1979.

If you find a copy, this is a wonderful introduction to Boundary Waters history!

The author and his wife are both outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs. Bolz has spent years amassing a library of original source material about the route between Lake Superior and Rainy Lake. They decide to invite a friend who runs an outdoor tripping business to go with them on a five-day canoe trip following the trade route. They plan to introduce him to the region’s history through reading excerpts from the diaries and journals of early travellers and surveyors around the campfire each night and at various stops that they make along the way.

The result is that readers experience a wonderful blend of the past and the route as it had become by 1958. Their friend also ends up catching the history bug, and by the end of the trip he, too, is taking a turn at reading the passages aloud. All three of them spend their breaks from paddling trying to find the exact location described by Henry, Hind, Delafield or any of a number who left a footprint on the trail over the past 250 years.

The book is illustrated by Frances Ann Hopkins, John Bigsby and Francis Lee Jaques, all of whom travelled through at some point in their careers during each of the three periods of history covered.

While the book offers only a superficial history of the Boundary Waters, it does so in an entertaining manner that encourages readers to go farther, and provides an excellent list of primary sources to facilitate further study.

Viking Saga – Peter Brent (1975)

22 January 2009

A non-fiction author should express his opinions and compare and contrast them with those of others. Introducing new ideas gets the intellectual juices of readers flowing. Presenting those ideas and discussing them frankly and diplomatically promotes the growth of knowledge. That is good.

Unfortunately, Peter Brent loses track of that in Viking Saga. He is patronising, pompous and, consequently, boring. I wanted to thwack him across the head with his tome several times. I don’t know enough about the Vikings to judge his scholarship. The presentation of his history of the Vikings left much to be desired, though. For example, he has little use for Christianity (perhaps for any religion, but especially Christianity!). His snide remarks against Christians and their efforts to spread their religion writhe with contempt, and they liberally salt the book. He’s entitled to his opinion, of course, and he may have a strong argument for his judgement. So, state it and move on. I’d have had a lot more respect for him if he had done that.

Brent is also prone to float off on imaginative flights of fancy from time to time. These florid bits of prose do not sit comfortably with the rest of the material in the book – they’re quite distracting.

 The other thing I found frustrating as a reader was his lack of reference to original sources. Where did he get his information? I’m the type of person who enjoys chasing down an obscure history if I find something intriguing about it (and I like notes on the same page as the text they are illuminating, thank you!). When these references are missing in a non-fiction work, red flags go up. Notes can be faked, of course, but at least I can check them out if they are there. Knowing what a writer has read and how that information has been applied helps readers learn and form opinions, too.

No references? Why not? Perhaps the writer is making things up as he goes along. Perhaps he’s got enough of a conscience to be embarrassed at his lack of original thought/material. Maybe he thinks his readers are too stupid to question, or too timid to explore on their own. Maybe the publisher made the decision. I don’t know. But I wonder.

 There was something I did find very interesting in the book – the last chapter. It is about the different ways Brent feels Viking society has contributed to Western systems and culture. For example, he questions that the North Western European notion of democracy rises from the Greek culture, and presents an interesting case for its development out of the Viking ‘thing,’ a gathering of all the people to decide legal cases, etc. I wish the rest of his book had been written the way he wrote that last chapter. It was thought provoking, and intriguing.

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Fatal Voyage – Peter Aughton

15 January 2009

Grade five was when we began to study the explorers. It was the first time I found myself compelled to read ahead in my textbook; my imagination sailed with those great explorers. My two favourite books were The Men Who Found America and Raven ‘s Cry, by Christie Harris. In the latter, I read how the Haida first met Captain Cook, the man who until that time stuck in my memory as discoverer of New Zealand and who was killed in Hawaii.

Fatal Voyage takes readers with Cook and his men on that last of his tours of discovery. His goal was to find the western entrance to the North-West Passage and, hopefully, circumnavigate the globe sailing eastward.

Aughton provides an interesting and entertaining account of the voyage. Cook takes his time along the way, mapping partially uncharted previous discoveries from the Indian Ocean to Polynesia, and discovering Hawaii on his way north. Right from the beginning there are problems with the seaworthiness of his ships, problems that ultimately lead to his death at the hands of an angry Hawaiian mob. We hear the voice of his officers in accounts of new sights and experiences in their journals, and Aughton provides those of us who aren’t experts in 18th century navigational methods with just enough information to understand the challenges of the voyage.

 This is a book for people eager to learn more about Pacific exploration without getting bogged down in the technicalities and dry, sonorous lectures of textbook history. Those who have read extensively in this field are unlikely to learn anything new, and may find the history too light to be very edifying. It is an easy read, and provides entertaining insights for the novice, though, and it gives a good overview of Cook’s contribution both in terms of mapping the world, and in better understanding the people who populated it at the time. Aughton also does some interesting speculating about the explorer’s responsibility for changing forever the lives of those native populations contacted, and the overall negative effect of contact on the cultures of the Pacific in particular.

 View these and some of the other books we have on exploration now!